Interview Series: Josh Keyes

We were thrilled to get a chance to chat with one of our favorite painters, Josh Keyes, and discuss his creative process, his style and his artistic interpretation of the current world crisis in this interview. You’ve only got a few more weeks to go check out his work in person at Jonathan LeVine gallery in New York – do it – and if you can’t afford to commission an original, invest in a print edition. In the meantime, enjoy the real talk! You’ll discover that Keyes’ work is touching way beyond the aesthetics.



LF: How are things going these days for you, Josh? We’re seeing your work everywhere and heard your show sold out!

JK: Things are going very well, and never a dull moment. I just released a new print and currently have a solo show at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York. I met a good number of folks at the opening, I work in a social vacuum most of the time, so it was a great opportunity to meet and speak with many of them, and to hear their response to the new work.

LF: Are there any hidden art references that may not be easy to pick up in your Migration series?

JK: I always like to include a few personal or private jokes and references in the work. Nothing as extreme as the secret society symbols or handshakes. For instance, Tangled II includes the license plate pulled from the shark dissection scene from Jaws. Tangled III has a license plate from a CIS show involving a serial killer in NY. I wanted to find the license plate from the film Taxi Driver but couldn’t find it. The subtle meaning being that sometimes the human race is as dangerous and unpredictable as the animal kingdom. Other devices I like to use are shadows that become something else, and graffiti with specific words that go along with the imagery, and basically any objects that can stand for something other than what it is. Let’s just say I like to use the toolbox of still life and allegorical references when I can.

LF: What’s your attachment to graffiti?

JK: The attachment is probably the fact that I can’t do it. Seriously, for me I see it everywhere, even though it is placed on the surface of the urban landscape sometimes I think of it as an excavation to the true and raw identity of a specific neighborhood or specific state of mind that has no expression in the corporate desert. I see it as an extension of everything I love about abstract expressionism, and see it as an emotional outcry, and evidence of again an energy and a voice that is not being heard through the existing media.

LF: Can you talk about Stampede, a 10′ x 5′ canvas, which is your largest piece to date? Any plans to go bigger?

JK: I don’t know if a larger canvas would fit into my studio. That painting for me was a beast of a painting. It was an exciting challenge to design the composition and find a way to include some of my favorite themes and animals all in one piece. One of the pieces of music I kept listening to while I painted it was Stravinsky’s’ Rite of Spring. I may visit this scale of work again in a year or so. I think the funniest thing for me was working with a itty bitty three hair brush on this thing, I kept thinking Pollock would kick my ass if he saw me.

LF: It sometimes feels, especially with the viral nature of the internet, that the earth is going through some big changes. Take for example, the worldwide instances of mass fish and bird deaths. Are we getting ecologically crunched, and is that why the animals in Stampede are running?

JK: Yes, I see them as an animal “Occupy” movement. They are pissed and they want their cement-encrusted land back. In truth, it is incredibly sobering and crushing to see what is happening to the natural habitats and ecosystems around the world. Just the other day I read an article announcing the extinction of the African Western Black Rhino. Like a masochistic boxer, we are only now seeing the bruises and injuries we have inflicted on ourselves, and unfortunately to the rest of the wonderful and amazing life on this planet. I am sure we will be seeing more effects in the future. Not the most uplifting topic of conversation but it is the reality we need to buck up, deal with and face.

LF: Can you talk your signature cubes of water against concrete in relationship to global warming? I guess what I’m saying is can the bear and the shark live happily ever after?

JK: I am sure they can, given the right amount of space, habitat, and resources. My work is about freezing a moment of drama, or creating a moment of tension like a neurotic natural history display in a museum. That is the question I am raising, what will and is happening to these different species when their migratory and feeding territories begin to overlap due to the change in temperate zones. I am pushing this interaction to the extreme in my work, but it does raise some very serious concerns and questions about the survival of certain species who may be in danger of extinction due to change in temperature, or competition for resources.

LF: Though your paintings are surreal in concept, you paint your animals and objects in a photo-realistic way with impeccable detail. Why this style of painting vs. something more abstract?

JK: I do paint abstract paintings, but I rarely show those to anyone. I think my work would not have the delivery or resonance in terms of my subject matter if they were painted abstractly. They are quite literal and in that way read like signs, the common denominator for me seems to be a level of realism which when translated to painting and drawing, is a direct and effective way of saying “tree” or “car” the advantage of working more expressively or abstractly would enhance the kind or feeling of the car, but I try to work in the emotional feeling or theatrical drama through composition and lighting. I hope that makes sense. I am not down playing abstraction in favor of realism, I just know what works for me. I believe in all forma of expression, and that they are all equally valid, you are talking to someone who during a figure painting class insisted on painting with a brush taped to an electric drill.

LF: Why animals vs. people?

JK: For me, animals connect more directly with people than the human form, in certain situations. As humans we tend to be quick to judge and codify or pigeonhole  “types” of people. The visual iconography and categories is very complex. Animals seem to connect with people in a very strong way. It could be something that is wired in us from the cave days. I do find and use some animals in the way I would use a human figure, there do exist archetypal similarities between certain animals and representations of humans. In some ways it like the example of the big bad wolf or other animal archetypes found in folk tales or children’s literature. In my case, the human presence is in the work, its’ you, the viewer, like abstract art I see the viewer as an active participant in “finishing” the work. The environment that most of the drama unfolds in is also a stand in or personification of the human presence, and also being presented on the dissected cube of earth is a metaphor for humanities obsessive desire to compartmentalize everything.

LF: We covered you before in San Francisco at Fifty24SF gallery, where your show was about genetically enhanced and modified plants and organisms. We deal with corporate modified products every day at the grocery store. Any tips for healthy living?

JK: I suppose being aware but not to the point of being scared to death. I think we are seeing a movement towards folks paying more attention to what they are exposed to and what they are eating. Part of this new shift to eating more organic and locally grown food is in part due to the major baby boom happening today. Parents seem to be very conscious about what they are feeding their newborn babies and this in turn is having an effect on what grocery stores carry, and seems to have fueled the demand for a wider selection of choices including local organic produce and food.

LF: You mentioned in your Fecal Face interview the rise of the Tea Party. That said, what is your take on the current Occupy movement?

JK: The Occupy movement is a historic phenomenon that is still taking shape. It brings up so many emotional feelings and associations for me, like a ticker tape of historical images and slogans. It is like a melting pot combining every voice and point of view that is not being heard. I feel it as a cathartic bellow echoing the energy of the 60’s. One significant difference between then and now is the use of social networking and the Internet. To watch a live feed of these protests and arrests is absolutely incredible.

From my critical mind is the question of what and how will this take shape in the form of a solid movement and perhaps political movement down the road. The voice has been heard, actions have been taken, discussions are taking place, I wonder if also there is the danger of being portrayed as a fringe group by the media, thus ostracizing and alienating the movement. I could see a third party emerge from this, you would have on the far right the Tea Party, the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and the Occupy Party, who knows, I am speaking generally and taking this to an extreme. The Occupy movement is here to stay, what it will become is anyone’s guess, what it has opened up is a space for the individual to be heard, and a chance to come together collectively via the Internet, chat room, civic center, and through this cathartic exchange of signs, yells and chants, and twinkle fingers, hear where we are emotionally and physically in this point in human history. Again what seems to be needed are blueprints and architects, and a way for people to participate in the design of building a new compassionate global culture.

From my gut I am shocked and awed by what has happened, I wish I had changed the street signs in Stampede to Wall Street, I see that painting as a personification of the Occupy movement.

LF: What do you do when you’re not painting? Do rainy days in Portland ever serve as an inspiration to paint?

JK: I paint better when it’s raining outside, nothing like mixing colors on a grey day. On days when I am not painting I am out and about exploring Portland. Mostly I have my sketchbook out and am dreaming up the next body of work.

LF: How FAST do you live?

JK: I have slowed down since my college years. Four cups of coffee is about as fast as I go, and in terms of driving my wife tells me I drive like a little old lady.

LF: Who inspire you?

JK: Too many to name. It used to be that I would hit the art magazine rack once a month to see what was “hot.” Now with everything online there is so much amazing art to see, and the difference is, with a magazine, you see only what a critic thinks is “good” or only what gallery can afford to place a n add with the magazine. Those filters are nearly gone now, and like the occupy movement it is up to the people to decide what is good and what is not in terms of art, literature, and music. Really incredible times we live in. To get back to the question, I like just about everything, and find inspiration from tattoos to 3D computer simulation videos of water spilling over clear cubes. With me, all channels are open. I must say I was blown away by AJ Fosik’s work, who also has a solo show up at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery.

LF: Beverage of choice.

Coffee, with a hit of 1% or should I say 99%.

LF: When are you happiest?

Right now is not bad (smiley face).


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